Should I prioritize humanitarian charities over the arts?
December 4, 2008 1:20 PM   Subscribe

An ethics question: Should I give only to the most serious causes, or is it OK to make room in my charity budget for groups that benefit society in less tangible ways?

I put aside 10 percent of my net income each year to give to charity. I think of it as a tithe, though I'm not a church member and don't give money to one. But I think the Bible basically had it right on that figure being a good rule of thumb for helping others.

However, I struggle with how to give away the money. The most serious causes, such as homelessness, AIDS research and malaria prevention, are obvious targets. But sometimes I want to give a donation to the local art museum, or a music education program, or even public radio.

My question is this: If I'm trying to use my money in the best way possible, should I go exclusively for the "serious" causes, even if the more artsy stuff might have a benefit for society in its own way? Any dollar I give to say, NPR, is money that could have gone to a malaria net. On the other hand, surely there's an ethical argument for giving to NPR. They provide valuable services.

I've thought about doing the 10 percent exclusively for the humanitarian charities and maybe devoting another 2 percent to the other stuff. But the same conundrum basically applies.

As I said before, I'm not a churchgoer, but I do wonder about the "what would Jesus do?" angle here. While most people interpret Jesus' instruction to tithe to mean giving money to the church, I've tried to do this a little differently and give directly to charities. But I still think about my giving having a kind of spiritual dimension, and I think that's driving a lot of this debate in my mind. It's quite possible I'm overthinking it, but I'd be interested in the response.
posted by phantroll to Human Relations (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It's your money. Distribute it however you see fit. No one is going to agree with your choices 100%, but if they're so bothered by the fact that you didn't distribute anything to Charity XYZ, well they can just give Charity XYZ money too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:23 PM on December 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

How about random chance or something? Pull one out of a hat. Or make a list of all charities that you think are worthwhile and distribute evenly among them.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 1:32 PM on December 4, 2008

I have worked in HIV research for 18 years. Having said that, I donate money to many other orgs. This is the way I see it. NPR has a take on news that no other American media does. We need their services for balance in this world. Museums and art programs are not frivolous. Children who are disadvantaged and even ones who aren't need to see all of their options or they are likely to find it nearly impossible to achieve their potential.

You are doing far, far more than most. Congratulate and give however you see fit.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:34 PM on December 4, 2008

I have two sets of money that I dole out. One goes to "actual" charities, which don't benefit me directly - things like United way, Planned Parenthood, etc. etc. I also set aside money "donations" for free products and services like NPR, webcomics, blogs I read, free museums, and so on. I don't really see this as a donation, because I am essentially paying for services that I use. Perhaps if you look at this as supporting a service, rather than supporting a charity, it'll be easier to sort out how you should dole your discretionary income. Perhaps set aside 10% for big charities and then a certain amount per month for everything else
posted by muddgirl at 1:38 PM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Think of it this way: a music education program could inspire a disadvantaged kid to fulfill her dreams, and then she inspires others to fulfill their dreams, and so on. Saving a life is great and noble, but the snowball effect of inspiration is, IMO, even more effective in the long run.
posted by desjardins at 1:48 PM on December 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Another useful criterion to consider is unpopularity. There is an argument that some of the most obviously worthy causes are actually quite well-provided for, precisely because it's so obvious that they're worthy. That would seem to be an argument in favor of giving to less popular causes, which surely includes some smaller arts and museum charities.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:53 PM on December 4, 2008 [5 favorites]

In his book: "More sex is safer sex", the economist Steven Landsburg gives an interesting perspective on this question. It took me a while to get my head around, and seems rather controversial, but his argument is that the only correct way to give to charity is to give to the single charity which you think is most important/will be able to make best use of your money. The idea being that the money you give to your most important 'big' charity will never solve the problem, so why stop giving to them and contribute to a lesser charity?

You can read more on that here, with a mathematical proof here.

I appreciate that this only half solves, half the problem (you at least only have to choose one big humanitarian charity to donate to). For smaller, local charities, the argument doesn't hold if your contribution is large relative to the total received by the charity.

I don't have an easy answer, but you may want to try and put charity in context a little personally. Ultimately, unless you already give ~all your money to charity, the $5 you spent on coffee yesterday could have been spent on NPR or a malaria net, so should you not drink coffee either?

Given that you are more likely to personally benefit from local giving (you can go and enjoy the art gallery/listen to the radio, that you are supporting) you could maybe consider it as more of a 'social/personal' expense, and give accordingly, saving the 'charity' money for your one favourite humanitarian cause. I dunno if it will help much, but the seperation might make the allocation easier...

Now that I read what has already been written, I see that that last paragraph is essentially what muddgirl said :).

Good luck. At the end of the day, no charity is bad charity, right?
posted by latentflip at 2:04 PM on December 4, 2008

It's great that you give, and are thoughtful about it. I think there are definitely spiritual benefits to sharing with others. It's always good to make sure a given charitable organization is legitimate, i.e. spends no more than 20 or 30 percent of donations on salaries and expense accounts, or plows most of the money raised back into aggressive fundraising.

Cultural groups that enrich people's lives are of course also important.

I don't know where you live, but here in the northeastern U.S., right now food banks are really hurting for donations of both non-perishable food items and cash contributions. There are also many community organizations who provide energy assistance for heating that are experiencing record need.
posted by longsleeves at 2:06 PM on December 4, 2008

The arts are really important.

Because of the local non-profits and churches (thank you, Unitarians!) that provide spaces for bands to put on shows, I was introduced to the local punk scene- which, in turn, got me into the social justice movement. Through people I've met at punk shows, I now volunteer at a local worker's rights center-- All because at one point, I went to a local free-as-cheap punk show in a church basement.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:46 PM on December 4, 2008

Best answer: What are your goals for giving? Really, your decision starts there.

Charitable giving is really tough to do from a totally utilitarian mindset. You can do it, and some people choose to...even making a career out of it, in some cases. But most people are on a sliding scale where rationality is at one end and emotionality the other. You give, which is great. Most charities use gifts well, which is great. So really, the question is: what are your goals? If you want to be 100% sure that you are donating to the single most important problem and the most effective organization and will have the highest dollar impact, you go down the road of business-influenced philanthropy that is somewhat reductionist, but is a fine way to go if that's your goal. If you donate to advance many causes in small ways, you can spread your donations around. If you donate because you like being associated with the organizations you give to - being on their mailing lists, tracking their activities, feeling a stake in their outcomes - then you should choose any charity that makes you feel like it's doing something in the world you like to see.

Most small donors give to a whole range of organizations, for different reasons at different times. For instance, people give to their churches, then maybe a few bucks at a bake sale or in the firefighter's boot, and maybe some money to one of their alumni associations, and to a friend who's running a race for a cure of some kind, and then some year-end gifts to favorite charities. The scattershot approach has something to be said for it in that many small gifts can sustain many large operations at once (thanks for the demo, Obama campaign), and you maintain connections to many organizations. On the other hand, if you want to feel you're making a big difference, choosing one charity - maybe one charity a year - and reserving all your funds for it will be of significant help.

You get slightly more value for your dollar when donating to a single charity, in general. If you give $100 to one charity, they process one check, write one thank you note, print one membership card, make one deposit, etc. If you give $20 each to five organizations, you have 5 times the amount of work taking place to process the same amount of donation - so there is some loss of efficiency. However, that might not be important enough to you to override your desire to be part of all five organizations.

There's really no simple answer to this. Personally, I think people should give to causes that mean something to them, things that touch their identity or express their values. And I don't think they need to be strictly rational. But donating is a personal decision and people do it in different ways.

And all donation methods are necessarily imperfect - all of them, even the highly rational ones. You ask, What would Jesus do? Well, he told us: "Sell all that you have, and give it to the poor." It was a high bar to set. For all those of us who are unwilling to do that (and thereby to free ourselves from decisions about how best to give our money) - the only thing left is to make imperfect decisions, trying to make the world better in ways we care about as much as we comfortably can.
posted by Miko at 2:58 PM on December 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I keep looking back at your question: I mean, what if you would never know about the need for malaria nets if NPR didn't report it, or if your state couldn't afford the transmitter to broadcast it to you? The world is pretty complicated.
posted by Miko at 3:05 PM on December 4, 2008

I also disagree with latentflip. Quoting the below mentioned fellow, the IRS hands out 501 (c) (3) statuses like candy.

You should give whatever you want wherever you want. That being said, check out CharityNavigator and make sure they spend your dollars efficiently, unless you are totally sure that they're the people you want to donate to.

I also like what their CEO has to say on why it is good that bad economic times will flush out some charities:

We do think some positive changes for donors will occur as a result of the bad economy. We may finally see some poorly operated agencies close, and some providing redundant services merge. In other words, in some cases, there are more charities that are working on an issue than are necessary, and usually some are bad at it. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources and by extension, a less effective impact. As agencies go through retrenchment, the smaller and less financially efficient charities will not be able to cut back enough to survive. This will leave more room for other, well prepared organizations to step in. These organizations should be able to expand their services, since there will be less competition for their donations. It is also conceivable that similar minded organizations will consider merging their operations, thereby cutting down on overhead costs and creating more efficient and leaner organizations.
posted by anniecat at 3:11 PM on December 4, 2008

i try to do something similar.

i've given money to public radio, various food banks, the southern poverty law center, the local high school to get uniforms for their basketball team (not candy-selling kids on the subway, actually to the coach), planned parenthood, and to a local woman and community activist who was diagnosed with horrible cancer and had a fundraiser at the local bar with a bunch of local bands.

sometimes i am random, sometimes i am concentrated.

i hear all the arguments against what i do and i tell you if i had to seriously analyze it i wouldn't do it. back when i was rich and did planned giving it was different.

i don't believe that i'm not helping.
posted by micawber at 3:34 PM on December 4, 2008

i've always thought that merely living is not enough--the arts matter, school matters, music matters. i don't feel like i've "cheated" other causes by donating for causes that mean a lot to me. often these things even provide distraction from more earthly discomforts--kids in kenya who don't have enough to eat can still check out books from the camelback library. people in one of my local hospitals with end-stage aids can still enjoy some beautiful music from a local cellist who comes in and plays once a week.

so give money to what's important to you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:35 PM on December 4, 2008

Boy. I'm trying to draw up a will and I've been wrestling with this question myself.

I think about my giving having a kind of spiritual dimension, and I think that's driving a lot of this debate in my mind. It's quite possible I'm overthinking it,

I think--if you haven't done so already--you might want to ask yourself what your motives are; I want to use the brain that God gave me to give what I have where it is needed, and not because it's good for my karma, or whatever. Let your "spiritual dimension" be It Isn't About You.

Drawing up my will is on hold until something strikes me as exactly right. Like, I want to preserve the biosphere so future generations will have clean air and water and wildlife habitat--but it seems like environmental action groups are among the most ineffectual charities out there. It's shameful.
posted by Restless Day at 3:47 PM on December 4, 2008

Re: people who dinged me on GiveWell. Thanks for your comments. I'm well aware of the MeFi/GiveWell astroturfing kerfuffle and the ethical lapses of some of the directors. I should have included that caveat in my comment and it was a mistake not to do so. Mea culpa.

I stand by the suggestion to look at the list of charities. It costs the OP nothing and may give him/her some new ideas.

GiveWell needs to grow out of those ugly early incidents into the valuable and worthwhile service it ought to be. The astroturfing, as serious as it was, is not a sufficient reason to deal GiveWell an immediate death blow. I'm not convinced that the optimal solution to GiveWell's failings is to crush the project, ignore it, or turn it into a foundation non grata. The more eyes, the better.

jessamyn, mathowie, cortex et al. should feel free to remove my original comment or this follow-up if they're worried that the comments will cause this thread to degenerate.
posted by jeeves at 3:59 PM on December 4, 2008

The idea being that the money you give to your most important 'big' charity will never solve the problem, so why stop giving to them and contribute to a lesser charity?
This logic may as well lead to the total opposite side: Since the charity will never solve the 'big' problem, why not give a helping hand to another one, occasionally?

I'm not a Christian, but I think, holding a belief in the spiritual comes with an acknowledgement of a higher order which is way much complicated for a mere human's cerebral capacity to comprehend. So, although altruism is a rare virtue all by itself, deciding which charity is bigger is a type of vanity. You are not all-knowing, and you are not here to single-handedly save the world. You cannot know if the path you take will be the right-est one. Continue what you're already doing: be a nice person, share what's yours with the less fortunate (with whichever charity you want at the time), and try to stay away from the excessive pride these 'nice' actions might plant in you -which is really the hardest part.
posted by procrastinator at 4:28 PM on December 4, 2008

I like the statement by muddgirl above re: paying for free services vs. giving to charities. You patronize the restaurants you want to stay open, you know?
posted by Acer_saccharum at 4:51 PM on December 4, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - anything that even smells like givewell astroturfing is out of here - go right to metatalk if you need to discuss it
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:33 PM on December 4, 2008

I struggled with this for awhile when I was doing ECF contributions, because there's a whole lot of things out there that you could do with your money. In the end, I picked organizations that I saw having an impact on the lives of those around me. In pure life-saving terms, I could have done a lot more, but I was satisfied that the groups I chose to support were doing some good in some way, and that was enough for me.

Some years, that was arts and culture groups. There's a history of mental illness in my family, so the Schizophrenia society got a fair bit of it. My dad had prostate/bladder cancer, so the prostate cancer organization in Canada got some for a few years. A good friend of mine volunteer for a charity that helped the underemployed transition into the workforce, and her stories were quite moving, so they got some money for awhile. I lend money through Kiva now, and I choose charities that help women set up small businesses, especially sewing ones, because I'm interested in sewing.

You can certainly try to pick charities that do the most life saving, if that's your goal. But if you choose charities with more esoteric goals or goals closer to home, that's really okay. Charity should be personal, and you should feel it personally. That's what makes it so that you can keep giving and not resent the 10%.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:00 PM on December 4, 2008

I do a lot of volunteer work. Some of it is with humanitarian charities (food banks, clothing drives) and some of it is not (planting in a rose garden or helping to save the bay). I figure that either way I'm helping improve people's lives. NPR makes my every day life better, and a free, well-funded press is central to a democracy. So I say go for it and give some money to NPR.
posted by bananafish at 9:28 PM on December 4, 2008

I think the offbeat and less usual charities are (assuming the minimum of honesty and good money use) perfectly acceptable things to donate to. SPCA, museums, childs play/hospitals, old folks home. All things worthy of love!
posted by Jacen at 11:45 PM on December 4, 2008

I deliberately chose a mix of four charities to give to:
- a local food bank
- a national civil rights organization
- a global medical organization
- an arts/culture group

Since I don't have much to give in terms of sheer dollars, I wanted to diversify what I give both geographically and in terms of the charity's work.

For all of these, I signed up for their "monthly supporter" option, where they automatically charge $X once a month to my credit card.

I may change the mix of charities next year, but right now I'm happy with where my money goes and what it's used for.
posted by shiny blue object at 5:45 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the many thoughtful replies. I'm still not sure what I'll do, but you all have made me feel a lot better by reminding me that whatever I choose, it's better than not giving at all.

Bananafish makes an excellent point that volunteer work is just as important, probably moreso, than giving money. I'd like especially to think Miko, who approached this question with special eloquence and pragmatism.

Again, many thanks.
posted by phantroll at 7:25 AM on December 5, 2008

Also consider that giving to the arts and music education is an investment in your own community, making the city/town where you live a more fulfilling place for those who are living there, especially those who are growing up there. You're literally taking care of your neighbor.
posted by desuetude at 7:54 AM on December 5, 2008

A few years ago, I visited Safe Passage in Guatemala City. They are now my priority for charitable giving. They do great work, efficiently, in a way that respects dignity. What they do completely captured my heart. Make sure any organization you give to is spending money wisely, in a manner that you approve of, on work that is meaningful to you. Then follow your heart.
posted by theora55 at 9:19 AM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: As I said before, I'm not a churchgoer, but I do wonder about the "what would Jesus do?" angle here.

There is another angle though:

While Jesus was in Bethany sitting at the table in the home of Simon the leper, a woman arrived with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume made from pure nard. She broke open the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Irritated, some who were there asked one another, “Why was the perfume wasted like this? This perfume could have been sold for more than 300 denarii and the money given to the destitute.” So they got extremely angry with her.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me, because you will always have the destitute with you and can help them whenever you want, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She poured perfume on my body in preparation for my burial.

Doing beautiful things seems to pass the muster. Your local museum is a worthwhile institution - don't feel guilty for donating.
posted by ersatz at 10:11 AM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. Jesus said some cool stuff, but at least as interpreted by the Gospel's authors, he wasn't all that easy to understand, was he? I think I'd better stop thinking of tithing and charitable giving in such black-and-white terms and, as ersatz so elegantly put it, try to "do beautiful things" for the sake of doing them, no matter what the cause.

Thanks so much. And now I have one of the opening songs from "Jesus Christ Superstar" in my head: "People who are hungry/People who are starving/They matter more than your feet and hands!"
posted by phantroll at 10:27 AM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

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